Q&A with Cher Fischer, author of Falling Into Green

A Q&A with Cher Fischer, author of Falling Into Green: An Eco-Mystery

When did you first begin to form a connection with your surroundings and  the environment?

I was born in Spokane, Washington, a beautiful place, but no one knew that the local nuclear-weapons-making site was polluting the local groundwater, rivers, and food supply (and would eventually become the largest Superfund toxic clean-up site in the country). Not my mom and dad, or me, in utero. It would take many years before I was finally diagnosed with a disease inherent to exposure to high levels of radiation—hypothyroidism—even though I had a goiter that was visible from birth, since there were no heritability factors, my pediatrician did nothing about it. So, I went on with my life, usually feeling a little spacey, sometimes downright ill, and emotionally fragile, to be sure—but in that fragility, I believe my internal communion with nature was born.

You see, I literally had to rely on my sense of nature, my intuition of what was around me, to survive. Some MDs I’ve spoken to say I shouldn’t have lived beyond a few years with a severely impacted thyroid. But live I did, and I’ve always been innately compelled to protect the environment. At eight years old, I wrote my first of many activist letters, this one to the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, demanding the conservation of forests.

Still, because my hypothyroid went untreated until I was an adult, my development was slow, and compared with my peers, I’ve done everything … late. I got married late, got my doctorate in psychology late. I had a child late. And, finally, I’ve written my first novel, Falling Into Green, late. But, then, late is better than never. And as for the green movement in the United States, where a cohesive environmental policy is so late in coming it sometimes seems like it will never happen—it will. I feel I can help stand testament to that.

 How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

Falling Into Green is a novel that has swirled inside my mind for years. I’ve always wanted to write something that would compel readers to engage with, and maybe even be entertained by, ecology. Finally, with this eco-mystery, I believe I’ve found a way.

My muse is one of the most unstable geological formations in the northern hemisphere: the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Portuguese Bend. When my son was born, I desperately wanted him to have a relationship with nature, and in Los Angeles, with its ever-expanding crisscross of concrete, that can be hard to do. When we moved south of LA to Palos Verdes, I got to spend remarkable hours each day with my toddler on the peninsula, exploring plants, trees, and relishing the turquoise coast. When my son began school, I let the land take up my imagination, and the character, Dr. Esmeralda Green, who ceaselessly and happily adapts to the transformative ecology, was born.

What is Esmeralda Green’s relationship with nature? 

She’s able to immerse herself in her environment. She has the ability, both innate and learned, to integrate psychology, ecology, forensic evidence, and emotion so she can understand the wholeness of something—for instance, a crime.

How can a person achieve a relationship with nature? 

Nature isn’t static, it’s fluid, and sensory, and in our highly structured perception of the world, we lose those connections to something that runs like a river through us, rather than a dam. To go out in a place of nature, even a small park down the street, and simply breathe is probably the first step to getting back in tune with a healthy appreciation of the environment (and subsequently, oneself). Then, to model it in a way; to immerse oneself in the kind of freedom that only ecology can offer. We have to remember nature is meant to be free—unpredictable, and frightening at times—but also a growing, living entity—just as we are—so get out in it and breathe, have fun, and let your endorphins run wild.

Do you ride horses like Esmeralda Green does? 

Not so much anymore, but I grew up riding Western saddle, and my parents in Minnesota own, along with a wonderful trainer, a thirty-five acre working stable. I think respect for horses runs deep in my family’s blood—we love them.

What is the inspiration for Ez’s house—not only its family history but also how it’s slipping from the land?

I wanted Ez to symbolize the human ability to change—to adapt. We really are so adept at that, and yet, beginning with the shift from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to industrial to technological, we’ve become progressively hardwired in our thinking, particularly about nature. It could be said that throughout history, our species has strived to control nature by predicting it to protect ourselves—but as we see on an almost daily basis, nature is getting harder to predict, and thus protect against. So once more, our ability to adapt in the face of challenge becomes important. Ez’s flexible perspective on adapting her beloved ancestral home, a home her grandfather built himself, to the slippery slope beneath it is actually a tribute to our ability to recreate ourselves. Ultimately, for Ez, the only way she can keep her home is to let it change, and to change with it.

What is “ecopsychology,” exactly?

Ecopsychology, or green psychology, is a groundbreaking psychological theory that goes so far to include nature in the development of the human psyche. Whereas many theories in psychology have not included an external force in the development of ego, superego, and id, ecopsychology stipulates that nature is inherent to the formation of an individual’s perception of the world, and his or her response to that world, whether it’s functional or dysfunctional.

As human beings, we often reflect what we see and what we experience, and when we are constantly barraged with trash, concrete, pollution, smog, waste—our behaviors will often mimic those very things. I think it’s no coincidence that we’ve adopted the word “toxic” into our cultural vernacular to describe negative behavior. We don’t realize the abusive relationship we sometimes have with nature on a personal level. And we often help to facilitate a larger entity, an organization or industry in an abusive relationship with nature because … it’s easier. Then, we don’t have to face our own stuff … our own personal responsibilities. And again, like any abusive relationship, it could end up killing us.

How/when did you first realize you wanted to specialize in ecopsychology?

Ecopsychology led me to psychology, and psychology led me back to ecopsychology. I wouldn’t have studied psychology had I not read a book titled Ecopsychology, by Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner, which struck me to the core of my being as authentic.

I’ve always been an environmentalist. I remember, as a three-year-old, playing at a small, mossy bank in our backyard that was teeming with green and tiny creatures, and I felt, even then, a kinship with that natural world. I spent my life advocating for nature on some level, whether it was campaigning through my neighborhood for dolphin-safe tuna, or getting into semi-brawls with the hunters in Minnesota. I even used to forgo driving a car while living in Los Angeles, of all places, taking the bus and carrying my groceries home in a duffel bag. I finally bought a Geo Metro, which got roughly 50 miles per gallon, and kept that car until the Toyota Prius was available. Now, our family has a Ford hybrid.

So, I studied psychology to understand ecopsychology—to be able to integrate the two theories into one.  That is ultimately what ecopsychology’s about—the integration, the connection between all things: the “me” and the “other.” Nature and nurture. Everything’s connected.

Why is ecopsychology an important field right now?

Well, if we go with the idea that everything’s connected, then in taking that one step further: What are we connected to? What are we connected by? Are we connected to each other and our earth in a healthy, sustainable way? Or is it an unhealthy, unsustainable way? I think we all have a pretty good idea of what our world and our connection to it looks like—and feels like—in the twenty-first century: unhealthy. And our behaviors are manifesting that unhealthy connection.

I often liken this relationship to the child who grows up in a domestic abuse situation—the learned behavior is abuse, so the child grows up and abuses or is abused, and the pattern repeats to the point at which we have a very clichéd phrase in our cultural vernacular to describe that learned behavior: the cycle of abuse. Well, taking that into the greater world, our learned behavior in our home, the earth, has been for millennia one of abuse—and when we grow up, we abuse the earth or become victims of abuse (i.e., victims of carcinogens in our water, food, etc.), and we’re willing to accept it because that’s what we’ve been taught—that’s our learned behavior. If we want to survive—as individuals and as a species—we need to break that cycle of abuse we practice toward nature.

What advice do you have for those suffering from “eco-anxiety” and concerns about the environment?

Break the cycle of abuse! Most anxiety disorders stem from feelings of lack of control of one’s own life, so recovering from eco-anxiety must be about taking control and “changing the world.” I know that term is bandied about a lot these days, but change really is the key, whether it’s in reference to a domestic abuse situation or an eco-abuse situation—take the first step, whether it’s buying organic, buying local, driving a car that gets better gas mileage, or urging your community, school, or workplace to adopt green standards.

People told me for years that I was crazy when it came to being concerned about the environment. I can’t tell you how many times I was laughed at for taking the bus in LA. Now, those same people take the bus, or drive a hybrid, or a ride a bike to where they want to go—because they’re experiencing the ravages of climate change, the volatility in weather, and, unconsciously, the manifestation of volatility in human behavior—and they want to do something about it, to initiate change.

Start with yourself, and you’ll touch a life, and another, and so on …

Cher’s eco-mystery, Falling Into Green, is now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your favorite indie bookstore, as well as on the Kindle, the Nook, and in the iBookstore

Seven ways authors can make the most of Goodreads

So you’re an author and you’ve just registered with Goodreads.

Now what?

From both sides of the fence, as both an author and a publisher, I’ve got 7 tips for getting started and making the most of this amazing social network for readers.

1. First, claim your books. When you’re new to Goodreads, you first have to let Goodreads know that a book is your book. It’s a simple process — you look up your title and then let Goodreads know that this title is written by you. It takes a day or so for Goodreads to verify this and then you’re all set. And make sure the book data is correct. As an example, below is an excerpt of the book profile page for our title Out of Breath:

2. Next, fill out your personal profile. Naturally, you shouldn’t feel compelled to divulge everything about yourself — particularly any information that is better left private. But I do recommend that you include a link to your book’s website, your Twitter account (if you have one), your favorite books and genres, and a bio. If you write a blog, you can connect your blog feed to your Goodreads profile (a very good idea to expand your reach). I also think including a photo is important so people can be sure that you’re actually the same person who wrote the book they love. (Hat tip to Deb for noting that you need to claim your book before you can input additional bio data).

3. Invite your friends. Goodreads already has more than 7 million members, but when you compare this against Facebook’s 900 million members, there’s still plenty of room to grow. By inviting your friends, you can not only introduce them to Goodreads, you might also create your own virtual book group. Also important is that your friends are likely to be among your biggest fans, so encourage them to rate, review, and chat about your book with their friends.

4. Rate and review books. You need to review about 60 books for Goodreads’ recommendation engine to get a feel for what books and genres you like. So dive in and get a feel for how the engine works. Not only will you get a better idea for how the engine works but also for how it can benefit your books.

5. Join groups. Goodreads members have created groups ranging from We ♥ YA Books! to Ladies & Literature to Nora Roberts Groupies. And odds are good that you’ll find a group that might be interested in your book — or at least share common interests. Here’s one group that I’m a member of:

6. Sponsor a giveaway, or two. Authors are eligible to give away free copies of their books for up to six months after publication date — and I recommend taking full advantage of it. You can give away one copy of your book, or you can give away several during that period — either way, this will go a long way torward raising awareness of your book. Check out the Goodreads giveaway page for a list of titles being offered.

Here is one of our titles currently being featured in a giveaway — and there’s still time left to register!

7. Make a list. Add to existing lists. Listopia is a mini-site that includes lists upon lists upon lists. From best urban YA vampire books to best Argentina travel books, you’ll have plenty to choose from. Lists are great ways to make your book more discoverable to others — and to discover books yourself.

There’s plenty more on Goodreads to explore — from favorite quotes and trivia to author interviews, but these 7 tips should get you off to a good start.

Finally, be prepared to hit a few speed bumps along the way. That is, Goodreads is growing quickly, and sometimes web pages load very slowly or not at all. Over the past year I’ve noticed fewer hiccups, but they still appear now and then. The good news is that the Goodreads staff is very responsive, so if you have problems or suggestions, let them know.

And if you have any tips to add to this list — please add your comments below…

The joy of Goodreads – for readers and authors

I use Goodreads fairly regularly, both as a reader and as an author.

As a reader, there is a geeky thrill to keeping track of every book you’ve read. I don’t have every book I’ve read up there, but I try to add the new ones as I go along. But Goodreads also helps me discover new books. That’s because Goodreads has developed a recommendation engine that looks at your reading list and your reviews to offer you new suggestions. And there’s also an active community that introduced me to, among other books, The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee.

Goodreads has been invaluable to me as an author in helping me raise awareness for my book The Tourist Trail. After my book came out, I gave away two free copies using the Goodreads giveaway program. This is something that all authors can do within six months of their book’s publication — and I highly recommend it. Because one thing you want people to do on Goodreads is add your book to their shelf. There’s no guarantee they will ever read your book, but it’s better to be on that virtual shelf than in the virtual closet. After two giveaways, several hundred people added my book to their shelves. If you’re considering a giveaway, I recommend that you schedule it roughly a month out, which gives people plenty of time to discover your book. And be sure that when you do mail out that free copy, you send a note to the lucky recipient asking for a review if he/she enjoys the book.

Speaking of giveaways, our author John Colman Wood will be giving away a free copy of his novel on Goodreads  — enter to win your free copy now!

For authors, giveaways are just the beginning. Otis Chandler, CEO of Goodreads, recently presented on How Consumers Discover Books Online at the Tools of Change conference.

You can download the presentation here, and I recommend checking it out.

Goodreads is learning a great deal about how people discover books. I pulled out two slides that I found most interesting.

This first slide details how people discover new books. This chart makes it clear that word of mouth sells books. Your “offline” friends as well as your virtual Goodreads friends play a big role in influencing your next read.

The publisher’s website doesn’t do much, I’m afraid. Nor does TV and radio. Word of mouth is what matters most — and virtual world-of-mouth services like Goodreads and Facebook can certainly help.

The next slide details how people on Goodreads discover books — and it’s comforting to see that people have many different ways of discovering books. Which means that authors don’t have to rely on just one approach. But these individual approaches do add up. A giveaway may only make a 2% difference, but if a lot of people review your book highly, this will improve the odds of your book being recommended via the Goodreads engine.  That is, success breeds success.

So if you’re not on Goodreads yet, check it out.

And if you’re an author, what are you waiting for?


What you can do for your favorite authors…

I came across an excellent blog post (with thanks to Serena at the fabulous Savvy Verse & Wit blog) by author Alma Katsu called Five Simple Things You Can Do To Help Your Favorite Author, which not only offers insights into what it’s really like to publish a book but delivers a call to action for friends/fans of writers. For all of you readers out there who love a yet-undiscovered author, this post offers invaluable ways to help that author out.

As Alma writes, “the mainstream book media tends to feature the books that the publishers have put the most money behind. This excludes all but one or two debut novels a year” — so true. And so sad. She offers five ways readers can help, all having to do with word of mouth. (And I’ll add something for the writers out there: If your friends aren’t already doing these wonderful things for you, ask them to. They may not realize how much it means to you and your book.)

In addition to Alma’s five excellent tips, I have a few to add as well…

  • Feature the book in your book club. When my book, Forgetting English, came out, I was absolutely thrilled when a few friends chose it for their book clubs, and I joined a few of them, both in person and via Skype. It was so fun that afterward I lost all shyness and humility when it came to suggesting Forgetting English when someone mentioned being in a book club.
  • Give your favorite books as gifts. The gift of a book, hand-picked and personalized by an author, is a beautiful thing. Most authors have extra copies of their books on hand, so when a holiday or birthday comes along, ask them if they might sign a copy (or two) for a few people on your gift list.
  • Donate a copy or two to charitable auctions. I’ve done this many times with Forgetting English (which is a teeny item by itself but goes very well with, say, a trip to Hawaii or Africa), and I’ve also been honored and grateful to be included in gift packages that other writers put together for fundraisers. It’s a great way to find new readers and do a little good for an organization.

There are so many ways to support your favorite authors — and unless they’re already on the bestseller lists, they will probably need it — and they’ll always appreciate it. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful ways to market a book. Alma says it best in her post: “Remember to tell others about the book. It’s as simple as that.” 

Q&A with John Colman Wood, author of The Names of Things

Q & A with John Wood, author of The Names of Things

By Melody Condon

Q: The Names of Things is a portrait of a marriage as well as a story about grief. In creating a cross-cultural look at marriage and death, what was involved in researching this book?

A: I suppose the research came first, before the idea of a novel. I’m an anthropologist, and what cultural anthropologists do is fieldwork. For a long time mine was with Gabra, a group of camel herders in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. I wrote a bunch of scholarly things about my experiences with them.

But straightforward ethnographic writing didn’t quite get to some of the experiences that I thought were most important, particularly having to do with the compromises we make as humans on the way to other things. Nomads want to be together. They care about each other. They need lasting, intimate relations with each other. But because of what they do they have to disperse, to separate from one another.

The same was true with me and my wife. We want to be together, but my work meant that either I had to leave her behind for a while or she had to come with me, and those compromises were difficult for us. So part of the fieldwork experience involved working through the consequences of that sort of work on a marriage, on family life. And so I was going through that periodic separation issue (or the guilt involved in asking her to go with me, to share that experience) and then I was seeing Gabra experience similar tensions between the desire to be together and the need to separate, to disperse, and the one experience shined a light on the other.

It was in seeing that connection between my dilemmas and their dilemmas that got me thinking about new ways of writing ethnography, of experimenting with fiction as a way of shining new light back on straight-up ethnographic descriptions. So the research was happening anyway, and the novel grew out of that body of experience.

Q: What aspects of your teaching experience were most helpful to you in writing this book?

A: I’m interested both as an ethnographer and as a teacher in the power of juxtaposition, of one thing being set up next to another thing, and the meaning that bleeds across the space between them. The working title for the novel was “The Space Between.” Sometimes you can tell people an idea. But as a teacher and as a student, I often think it’s better to let people, including myself, figure it out, to see for myself. Especially when two very unlike things are juxtaposed, it almost compels the human brain to resolve the gap, to make sense of what doesn’t make sense.

In my classes I sometimes ask students to read fiction, stories, about a place, set among people we are studying, with the idea of jarring some new insight loose. We get bogged down with the usual categories. Unusual juxtapositions give us new thoughts, some of them not very interesting or useful, but sometimes they can be important. That’s what ethnographic fieldwork is all about. You go live with people who are unfamiliar, get to know them, but on the way you get to know your own culture all the better for having experienced something strange, something different. So it is the encounter with difference: another culture. But you can approximate that with texts—at least I think you can—by juxtaposing different kinds of texts that force us to think about each one in a new way.

Q: Why do you write fiction?

A: What anthropologists do is go and experience other people, observe them, hang out with them, participate in their lives, and attempt to understand them. That process of describing and interpreting other people requires raw description but also theory—ideas about people, what they do, how they make sense of their world, the sorts of problems they’re trying to solve. Ideas help us make sense of raw description. But ideas are always a kind of fiction, they’re made up, they don’t exist out there in the world (except maybe if you’re Plato). So our theories are made up, they’re fictions. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that stories, true or made-up, have a way of making sense of things. If we don’t understand what someone has done, we want to know the story of that act, and often when we know the story we have a sense of aha, I get it.

Honestly, one of the reasons I write fiction is I like writing fiction. I feel an impulse to tell stories, to make things up, to imagine things.

But another reason I write fiction as an anthropologist is to explore the ways stories, even made-up stories, have of giving a reader a sense of things: not just that they happened, but what it felt like, what the experience was like. I think that’s one of the main reasons people read ethnographies in the first place, not simply to find out that there are people over there who do such and such, but what it is like to be there with them.

If out of that comes some emergent understanding of what they do, so much the better.

Q: The book is about a marriage between an anthropologist and his wife, a painter. What ­­significance do the disciplines of anthropology and art have in the story?

A: Perhaps I run the risk of telling the obvious here. But both anthropology and art are in the business of representation, of making representations about the world, or human experience, or feelings, attitudes, ideas. They both seek to make “true” representations, but there are quotations marks around the word in both cases. The representations take on their own reality; they’re not independently real, they’re made. But both disciplines have a different relationship to the idea of truth, to the idea of accuracy, to the ideas of nonfiction or fiction, so making one character an anthropologist and the other an artist gave the story an opportunity to explore those similarities and differences. That also seems like an anthropological impulse, as well as an aesthetic one.

Q: What is the relationship between the story of the novel and the interwoven accounts of Dasse death rituals?

A: Well, this is what I’ve been talking about. The hope and prayer I have as a writer is that reading the fictional story will give the reader a sense, a feeling, for the purposes behind Dasse funerary practices, but also that the straight-up description of the funeral practices will shine a light back on the events of the story. That way, the reader will understand the fictional anthropologist better for knowing something about the death rituals of the people he studies, and the story of the death rituals will take on new meaning because the reader is familiar with the story of a particular individual and what he went through to do the ethnography. The hope is they—the fiction and the nonfiction—help each other tell an even bigger story.

Q: The anthropologist in the book has an intellectual argument with his students about whether the very practice of anthropology changes or even harms the society being studied. What would you say to those wondering about the value of anthropology?

A: One theme of the novel is that the anthropologist is struggling with the guilt he feels for what happens to his wife. He didn’t intend anything bad, but something bad happened, and in a way he’s responsible. At least partly. Same thing happens in anthropology. We go out with the best intentions and then we have an effect on one another, and sometimes that effect is not so salutary. Of course, that happens in any relationship. Life sometimes damages us. But I don’t think because sometimes we hurt each other that we should stop associating.

So yes, anthropologists have an effect on the people they study. Sometimes it’s not so good. But the alternative, not getting to know each other, ignoring each other, being ignorant of each other leads to even worse effects, causes more damage in the end. If nothing else, anthropology, doing fieldwork, attempting to know and understand each other, even if we ultimately fail—and we ultimately will fail to fully understand each other—is the most important thing any of us can do, whether it’s with your family or our neighbors or people on the other side of the planet. The alternative, not trying, is worse.

Q: What is the relationship between this book and your previous ethnography, When Men Are Women?

 A: When Men Are Women explores the symbolic ways Gabra make sense of ambiguities in their lives. Men are associated with “outside,” the pasturelands beyond the camps, while women are associated with “inside,” the tents and life within the camps. Yet both men and women have to go outside and return inside. Gabra must separate from one another and yet form lasting attachments. So the gender reversal is doing a lot of symbolic work in capturing the need for both. Life is not either/or but both/and, and yet being both creates a sense of contradiction, and that sets up an existential tension. This is not unique to Gabra. All of us, in one sense or another, are dealing with the simultaneous need to connect with other people but also to individuate, to separate. The novel became another way of exploring that tension. In that sense, I think of it as a sequel to the ethnography. They’re a matched set though they occupy very different genres of writing.



Q: What is the most frightening—or, perhaps, enlightening—encounter you have had with African wildlife?

A: Well, the most frightening encounter involved my wife, Carol, and I wasn’t there. She was walking in the forest on Marsabit Mountain. There were some other people from the town nearby collecting firewood. An elephant happened by, or the people happened by the elephant, and the elephant charged them and they had to run away. Elephants are fast but their eyesight is poor. At least that’s what I’m told. I’ve never talked with an elephant about this. In this case, everyone managed to escape. That doesn’t always happen. People are often killed by elephants in the Marsabit forest. But that was pretty frightening to hear about when she told me. I think I was off on the desert with Gabra at the time this happened.

More typically what frightened me was snakes, for most of the snakes in this part of the world are pretty poisonous, and I was often far away from medical help. Fortunately they’re not numerous. It’s a desert. And snakes don’t like hanging around people. So though I saw many snakes, and had to kill a few, I was never bitten. A Gabra friend stepped on a puff adder one night and was bitten and died. So I knew this was a danger.

The novel has scenes of hyenas and lions, and, while I suppose they are dangerous to people, they’re more a danger to livestock, and Gabra have to contend with them for that reason. Most of the time predators stay away from people, so, though I saw hyenas and lions and leopards, I never felt directly threatened by any of them. I knew Gabra who had been attacked by lions, or who had killed lions that were attacking their flocks.

The most enlightening experience I had with wildlife was not frightening at all but just the opposite. Some friends and Carol and I were camping in a place called Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya. This was when Carol and I were teaching school there, years before doing fieldwork with Gabra. I was a runner. In the morning I got up and went for a run, and as I did I met a small herd of zebra and another of wildebeest. For a time, running along this path, I was running with them or they with me. They didn’t seem to be desperate to get away from me. We were trotting along at more or less the same pace. Of course, this is all in my head, but it was the closest I’ve felt to experiencing some sort of connection between my human self and my animal self. Not sure there’s an insight there. But the experience was thrilling then and remains thrilling when I think about it now.

Perhaps that’s what anthropology is all about—perhaps that’s what being human is all about—finding ways to connect, to make connections with the world, both human and nonhuman, and even to break down those divisions.

The Names of Things is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBookstore, and on the Kindle and the Nook — as well as at your favorite indie bookstore.

Melody Condon is a student at Southern Oregon University who will graduate in 2012 with a B.A. in professional writing and a minor in creative writing. After graduating, she hopes to break into publishing and spread the joys of proper punctuation through the world. She is sharing her joy of literature and proper punctuation at Ashland Creek Press, where she has been an editorial and marketing assistant since October of 2011.